Monday, February 25, 2013

Paying Back in Beauty and Caring

This blog post is mostly a story about my grandfather: a tribute in his memory.  One of many.
Now it was time for him to move out. She wasn't there, so he must go for both of them. It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength.
  - Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia

I have mentioned my grandfather a few times before: that he was a real "American Success Story" of hard work bringing his family from poverty to wealth, and that he was the chemist who convinced the board of Johnson and Johnson to recall all Tylenol during the Tylenol Crisis.

My grandparents met in elementary school, but she had cooties back then.  They married when he was nineteen. 

He went to college at the Newark College of Engineering.  He worked to pay his way through college: first driving an ice cream truck, then driving a taxi.

It was difficult to support a family and pay for college.  Too difficult, even for someone like my grandfather who had lived through the Great Depression and avoided debt.

At the end of one semester, the Head of the Chemistry Department asked my grandfather to step into his office.  I do not know that man's name.  He had a very big wooden desk.

"Your grades are slipping," he noted.

"Yes, sir," my grandfather answered.

"I hear you are a good taxi driver," he commented.

"Sir," my grandfather replied.

"You could be a brilliant chemist.  The world needs brilliant chemists more than it needs taxi drivers," he said.  Then he took out his checkbook and wrote my grandfather a check that would cover the next semester's tuition.  "I do not want you driving a taxi next semester," he said as he handed my grandfather the check across the desk.

"Sir, I do not know when I can pay you back," my grandfather said.

"You will not pay me back," the Head of the Chemistry Department replied.  "You will become a brilliant chemist.  Some day you will have your own office, your own big wooden desk, and your own checkbook."

My grandfather understood.  He became financially successful and generous to charities and to friends in need.

My grandfather later become instrumental in causing Johnson and Johnson to promote qualified minority employees up to positions of management decades before other large companies began to do so.  When he passed away in 2003, my family discovered that sometimes he would secretly help pay for these co-workers' children's college educations with his own money.

The loss of a family member is hard.  But there are universal steps for proper and healthy mourning.

Sharing stories about the virtues of the departed family member is an important part of the process from mourning the person with grief to remembering the person with a smile.  These stories serve as the "knots" that tie the tapestry of their life to the tapestries of other lives by reminding and encouraging us help continue their virtues: at first because we want to commemorate their tapestry's beauty; eventually because such deeds become themes in our own tapestry.

In my family, my grandfather's generosity continues in how we help friends with interest-free loans.

How do you "pay back to the world in beauty and caring" what has been shared with you by your departed family members?

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